Let’s see, what’s next on the list…
Seventeenth-century pornography? Lucky me!
It’s all Kate Loveman‘s fault. She’s the one who brought The Isle Of Pines to my attention, and made it sound so interesting that I put it on The List, even though it violated my self-imposed cut-off by being published in 1668.
It think I’ve discovered a corollary to “may you live in interesting times”: “may you read an interesting book”.
As discussed in Reading Fictions, Henry Neville’s The Isle Of Pines was one of the numerous “shams” perpetrated during the time of the Restoration. It was one of the more successful ones, if not in terms of how long people were fooled, then for how widely it was read: in addition to a huge print run in England, The Isle Of Pines was published in translation in at least four other countries. It would be nice to be able to report that it was the literary merit of the work that made it so successful, but it seems that its main attractions lay rather in its premise – that of an Englishman cast away on an uncharted island in company with four young woman, who with great enthusiasm set about populating their new home.
Neville’s tale was published as a series of pamphlets in the middle of 1668. The first part, issued in June, was the self-narrative of George Pines, written shortly before his death seventy-four years after he and his companions were cast away. The second part, which followed in July, is another first-person narrative, this time of a Dutch sea captain, Henry Cornelius Van Sloetten, who with his crew were driven upon the same island some eighty years later, and found it populated by a contradiction, apparent savages of European descent who “speak English and yet to go naked”. Van Sloetten receives from the current leader of these people, George Pines’ grandson William, George’s written history, which he carries back to Europe. The third pamphlet, released in early August, interpolated Pines’ narrative into Van Sloetten’s, and also appended two letters from a merchant in Amsterdam to a “credible person in Covent Garden”, in which it is agreed that the tale is “a fabulous story”, but one that should be believed, as issuing from reliable sources.
Documents from the time make it clear that people did believe the story, although not for very long: the sham appears to have been exposed as early as the end of August. Many people suspected it to be a hoax perpetrated upon the English by the Dutch, and it was much resented upon that account. No-one seems to have seen The Isle Of Pines as more than, on one hand, a silly joke, or on the other, a bit of smut. This attitude persisted, for the most part, well into the 20th century. In 1920, the American historian and bibliophile Worthington Chauncey Ford reprinted Neville’s work in its entirety, accompanying it with an essay that was predominantly an account of the tale’s confusing publishing history, but also contained some ruminations on its possible influences and meanings – as well as an embarrassed apology for its salacious nature.
As time passed, however, the sexual content of The Isle Of Pines became nothing to get worked up about, and critics were finally able to look past its prurient surface to see what else was going on. At this point, an amusing truth about previous attempts to analyse The Isle Of Pines became evident: that most of them were skewed because they only considered the first part of the story, George Pines’ narrative – because after the initial time of publication it was only that section of the story that was reprinted and reissued, while the framing devices were allowed to fall into obscurity. The Isle Of Pines may not be pornographic in the contemporary sense – it’s more intent upon who did what to whom, and how often, than what they did it with and how – but its sexual frankness, and the nature of its sexual content, still serve to distract the modern reader from what might have been Henry Neville’s deeper intention.
However – in order to understand that intention, we first have to understand its author, and the events of his lifetime. This is one story that needs to be read in its context.
Henry Neville was one of a long line of Henry Nevilles, most of them politicians, as well as travellers and scholars; he is often distinguished from the other members of his family by being called “the satirist”. (His grandfather, who was Elizabeth I’s ambassador to France, is, I see, the latest person to be credited with “writing Shakespeare”.) Neville entered Parliament in the wake of the English Civil War. He was a staunch republican who quickly began to look upon Cromwell with suspicion, and broke with him altogether after Cromwell used armed forces to “dissolve” the Parliament in 1653. Neville had already by this time published various satirical pamphlets, as well as some more serious efforts, and now he began to use his pen again, publishing Shuffling, Cutting and Dealing, in a Game at Piquet, Being Acted From the Year 1653 to 1658, by Oliver, Protector, and Others. Much too blunt about Cromwell’s manoeuvring, this effort saw Neville exiled from England until after Cromwell’s succession by his son, Richard, in 1658. Neville then not only returned to England, but was re-elected to Parliament. Accusations of atheism and blasphemy were brought against him in an effort to exclude him, but the tactic failed.
In any event, Richard Cromwell soon had more important things to worry about than Henry Neville’s pen. He was forced to abdicate in May of 1659, and England began a slow but inexorable journey back to monarchy. This put Neville in a bind: much as he had battled the Cromwells, he most assuredly did not want the Stuarts back, and he fought against the Restoration up until the last moment. Neville was subsequently involved in various subversive, anti-monarchic activities, and accused of others. In 1663, he was arrested and held in the Tower of London on suspicion of having been involved in the Farneley Wood Plot, an anti-Royalist rebellion by the members of a former parliamentary community in Yorkshire. (Supposedly. No-one seems to know what really did happen with respect to this failed revolt, but twenty-six people were executed in its aftermath.) Neville was eventually released due to lack of evidence, and this time he didn’t wait to be asked, but spent the next four years in self-imposed exile in Italy.
During the 17th century, the English were spasmodically at war with the Dutch, who at that time posed a genuine threat to England’s colnies and trade. The first round of the Anglo-Dutch wars was fought during the Interregnum and was largely inconclusive. Both sides eventually ran out of steam, and a peace treaty was signed in 1654. The Dutch had hung on to their position as the world’s preeminent trading nation, however, and antagonism between the two nations remained close to the surface.
At this time, the Dutch, learning from past mistakes, set about building up its navy; while in England, the monarchy was restored, releasing a surge of patriotic feeling that (as patriotic feeling often will) led to war. The second Anglo-Dutch war started well for the English with victory in the first battle, but after that the tide turned towards the Dutch. England was already in financial difficulties, and in the wake of the twin blows of the Great Plague and the Fire of London, Charles II began a series of attempts to negotiate peace.
However, the continuing hostilities culminated in “the English Pearl Harbour”, the Battle of Medway. Due to their financial inability to maintain their fleet, the English had withdrawn their heavier vessels to dock at Chatham. In June 1667, the Dutch broke through the fortifications at the mouth of the Thames and attacked the immobile fleet. Fifteen ships were destroyed and the navy’s flagship, HMS Royal Charles, was captured and towed back to the Netherlands. Charles II again sued for peace, and a treaty was ratified at the end of July 1667.
And in 1668, Henry Neville returned to England, and published The Isle Of Pines.
[To be continued…]